By Karina Gonzalez
A group of area residents gathered Tuesday afternoon at the Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport to welcome the first refugee family from Tanzania to settle here.
One person held flowers. Another held a soccer ball. All were there to help with the arrival of a 38-year-old woman and her grandson. None of them, however, was sure how they would communicate.
"Nobody understood me. I couldn't communicate with anyone," said Veronica Niyibigira, who until this week had lived in a refugee camp since she left her native Burundi in 1972. Ms. Niyibigira is among the 50 people from Africa expected to resettle here this year.
When Virginie Cimpaye, an area resident originally from Burundi arrived at the airport speaking in her native Kirundi, Ms. Niyibigira began to cry.
Angel Daugherty, a case manager for Bridge Refugee and Sponsorship Services, stood several feet away, tears streaming down her cheeks. She smiled contentedly.
"Finally, someone could speak (her) language," she said, speaking of the grandmother.
Pierre Nzokizwanimana, a French professor at Southern Adventist University who with his wife will be helping with recent arrivals from Tanzania, said that it is good that the population of Burundians in Chattanooga is growing.
"We were the only Burundians in the city, and that was sad," he said. "There is a diversity now in Chattanooga that you had to travel to New York or Chicago to get."
As many as 10,000 refugees from Tanzania, known as the "1972 Burundians," are being resettled in the United States this year, according to resettlement officials. The refugees are known by the year of their initial exile from Burundi, located in the Great Lakes region of sub-Saharan Africa.
Sharon Schedrick with Bridge services said the group is working out final details for the arrival of other families. Bridges is seeking churches, organizations or individual families to sponsor the arrivals and to help with their transition, she said.
"Next Tuesday, we have six people coming," she said. "We really, really need sponsors."
At the family's temporary new home on Hixson Pike, area resident Janetta Reed held Ms. Niyibigira's hand as she led her through explanations of the functions of the stove, refrigerator and microwave. After Ms. Niyibigira learned to turn the light switch above the stove on and off, the two ladies cheered.
"You have to reverse shoes," said Ms. Reed, who has volunteered with Bridge for the past two years. "What if you suddenly had to go to Africa and live in a refugee camp at this point? In our country we take so much for granted."
E-mail Karina Gonzalez at email@example.com
The 1972 Burundians are a group of refugees, primarily of Hutu ethnicity, who fled their home country in 1972 after violence by the Tutsi-dominated government against the Hutu.
* 9,000: Number of 1972 Burundians living in isolated refugee camps in Tanzania now being considered for U.S. resettlement
* Kirundi, French and Kiswahili: Main languages spoken by the Burundians
* Religion: Majority Christian with a small number identifying themselves as Muslim
Source: Cultural Orientation Resource Center
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Contact Bridge Refugee & Sponsorship Services at (423) 954-1911 or 954-9288 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.